My final interaction with Menachem “Max” Stark— the Brooklyn landlord recently kidnapped and killed (his body was found partially incinerated in a trash can in a Long Island gas station)— occurred on a foggy morning on Berry Street two years ago. After making my way out of Blue Bottle Coffee, “Max” spotted me from his car, pulled over, and offered me cash on the spot.
“Will you withdraw the lawsuit?” he asked, in reference to the legal action I was spearheading against him on behalf of myself and other tenants.
“No!” I pushed back forcefully. I had faith in the court system; I believed justice is what both he and I would get. He lazily shook my hand, but then vague reference was made to a rumored black list (of "bad renters") shared amongst his circle of landlords. He suddenly (and sternly) admonished that I would “never find housing in Brooklyn again.” As he drove off, I realized my body was shaking so forcefully, the coffee had spilled onto my hands.
Two weeks earlier, the Department of Buildings showed up at my address, 239 Banker Street in Greenpoint (which Mr. Stark owned), to immediately vacate the property. This “luxury” rental building had sewage leaking uncontrollably on the uninhabited first floor. It was also where Mr. Stark decided to hide months’ worth of tenant trash, rather than pay to have it picked up regularly. The old brick walls crumbled if you so much as pressed on them. The shaft of the freight elevator was dangerously close to collapsing, but still more reliable than the stairs. Rats and other creatures roamed the empty, trash filled apartments freely. We came to learn none of the plumbing or general infrastructure had been updated since it was built almost a hundred years ago.
A month before moving in, I was assured my twelve-hundred square foot apartment would be finished and ready. Upon arrival, though, there were no windows, but boarded up holes in the walls instead. I had no kitchen for a time, no heat and occasionally no running water or electricity. I would frequently come home to find my door ajar, strangers inside cutting drywall just beside my bed, smoking cigarettes out one of the boarded up holes, my dog Nelson locked in the dark and windowless bathroom.
It was unlivable. And so naturally, we were evicted. It was a blessing in disguise to be forcibly freed from the squalor, but the inspector gave tenants only four (4) hours to clear out everything we owned, advising the doors would be barred thereafter. I was lucky enough to have family nearby, so in a dizzying and furious spell, threw everything I owned into boxes that were placed on a U-Haul truck. I left my mattress, which let out puffs of construction dust when disturbed. But twenty or so people who had no easy solution to their predicament stood on the sidewalk, guarding their stacked belongings as they made calls to friends looking for a couch to sleep on, a place to store what they were able to carry out in time. “Can I bring my dog?” “How long can I stay?” “How soon can I board a flight to California?”
Some of the same men who had shown me 239 Banker descended upon the scene of the evicted tenants. Urban vultures based out of minivans, they were handing out business cards, encouraging those stuck on the street to have a look at a new building just down the block– another of Mr. Stark's properties, this one under a different LLC. Meanwhile, Max and his associates hid in a white vehicle just down the block, watching as the inspectors dead-bolted the doors and posted a vacate order, barring access.
During a previous encounter, and before the lawsuit, my mother insisted she approach Max after seeing the state of our living arrangements.
"Would you allow your children to live in these conditions!?" she asked incredulously.
Max laughed. "Not a chance!"
This escalated into a heated argument. I initially feared my curbside exchange would end the same way, or result in a later encounter– but I never saw him again.
It was just before the eviction that a group of tenants, myself included, banded together and decided to sue Max Stark. A year later, after relocating twice, paying legal fees and all the expenses of such an ordeal, I was bankrupt. I had no choice but to withdraw from the lawsuit, much to the dismay of those who depended on me to stay the course. Despite the growing list of violations on the Department of Buildings website, 239 Banker rented out every apartment again— life for Menachem Stark seemed to go on uninterrupted.
My personal suffering does not matter in the grand scheme of things, nor that was I financially crushed by the wrongdoings of my landlord. Obviously, I could never have imagined Max Stark’s untimely demise, nor did I wish it upon him (or would I, upon anyone else). What matters is that I was not alone in what happened to me– my brief but brutal dealings with Mr. Stark, and others like him, are anything but isolated incidents. Thousands of people have been victims of him and similar landlords. With a tight grip on real estate throughout Brooklyn, you'd be hard pressed to find a building not owned by one of the men who share the “black list” I was told I'd be added to. In a time of rapid residential growth and a surge in the popularity of many Brooklyn neighborhoods, we cannot allow landlords to swindle or endanger the rest of us—to shoddily build homes and use the fortunes they've amassed to pay measly fines or bribe those who threaten to sue them, or to cover their tracks by selling a notorious property to another LLC they own, only to seek out the next batch of unsuspecting tenants to ruin.
Liberal, foodie, former actor, sales associate in high-end retail. Gay. A typical New Yorker.
Politics, video games, fashion, food and cocktails. All "good things."